Paul R. Abramson is one of the world’s most eminent scientists in the field of human sexuality. He is Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and a former editor of the Journal of Sex Research . He has been a technical advisor to the World Health Organization’s Global Program on AIDS and is the author of six books, including Sexual Nature, Sexual Culture and Sarah: A Sexual Biography . Steven D. Pinkerton recently received a doctorate in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Pinkerton has written extensively in the areas of human sexuality and AIDS prevention and is presently pursuing a broad research agenda in psychology and the behavioral sciences as a post-doctoral fellow at UCLA. Together they are the authors of With Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Human Sexuality which argues that human sexuality cannot be understood if its significance is limited to reproduction alone. The authors posit that in humans reproduction itself occurs as a byproduct of pleasure–not the other way around–and that it is the strong drive for pleasure that makes people overcome many obstacles–and even life-threatening dangers such as AIDS–to have sex. In the excerpt below we learn how “sexual pleasure” is defined.
What is sexual pleasure? Unfortunately, the concept denoted here by “sexual pleasure” is a rather slippery creature, weighted down by considerable pop psychological baggage, and subject to cross-cultural and
cross-historical variation. Nevertheless, it is desirable to have some definition of this concept, however inexact, to provide an anchor for subsequent discussions. With this in mind, we offer the following very simple (and regrettably vague) definition: Sexual pleasure consists of those positively valued feelings induced by sexual stimuli. Notice that this conceptualization encompasses a broad range of sexual pleasures, from the soothing sensations of sensual massage, to the explosion of feeling that accompanies orgasm.
Although the positive sensations we are calling sexual pleasure can be evoked, to some extent, by erotic thoughts, fantasies, and direct neural stimulation, we assume here for the sake of simplicity that stimulation of the genitals, breasts, or other relevant body parts (i.e., the erogenous zones) is necessary to initiate these feelings. According to this simplified model, the experience of sexual pleasure begins when the skin receptors in one or more erogenous zones are stimulated, and ends with a positive evaluation within the brain that the sensations experienced are indeed both pleasurable and sexual in nature. The interpretive function of the brain in the experience of sexual pleasure cannot be overemphasized. The sensory signals arriving at the brain following stimulation of an erogenous zone are not inherently pleasurable, or even inherently sexual. Instead, interpretation of these signals by the brain is required for the impinging sensations to be recognized as sexually pleasurable. It is this interpretive stage that admits the profound influences of culture and context in the experience of sexual pleasure. With regard to context, it is often claimed that sex isn’t really sex for a prostitute plying her trade; sex with a lover, however, is an entirely different matter.
A rather extreme example of the pervasive influence of culture is provided by the Manus, a pre-World War II society in Papua New Guinea. Among the sex-negative Manus: Intercourse between husband and wife was considered to be sinful or degrading, and was undertaken only in strict secrecy. Women considered coitus to be an abomination which they had to endure, even painfully, until they produced a child.
Unfortunately, the definition of sexual pleasure provided here neglects several of its more salient aspects, including the pleasure of giving pleasure. For example, in the butch/femme lesbian culture of the 1940s and 1950s, the butch partner often derived her greatest erotic satisfaction from pleasuring her femme counterpart, “if I could give her satisfaction to the highest, that’s what gave me satisfaction”; in such stereotyped role playing it was neither expected nor desired that the femme should reciprocate. This does not mean, however, that the butch’s pleasure necessarily lacked a physical component. According to Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis: Many butches were and remain spontaneously orgasmic. Their excitement level peaks to orgasm when they make love orally or digitally to a woman. The nature of this orgasm is unclear. Some describe it as physical, while others think it is mental.
The popular 1993 film, The Crying Game, can be used to illustrate one of the main aspects of our conception of sexual pleasure—namely, the interpretive role of the mind. Politics and mayhem notwithstanding, this Academy Award-winning film’s plot follows the basic modern love story, up to a point. Thus, boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, boy and girl decide to have sex. But then, in the pivotal sex scene, the boy discovers—much to his dismay—that the girl is really a guy, penis and all. The boy responds by vomiting uncontrollably. Why? Wasn’t the boy in love (or at least in lust)? And wasn’t he also highly aroused sexually? So what triggered his disgust? Presumably, his reaction sprang from his brain rather than his heart. Despite his intense attraction and physiological arousal, this encounter was no longer interpreted as heterosex, but was instead homosex. Even with love and lust, the circumstances were no longer acceptable, and, therefore, no longer arousing to him.
As conceptualized here, sexual pleasure encompasses a loosely defined collection of physiological and psychological responses. Physiologically, it appears that the capacity for sexual pleasure is “hardwired” in the sense that it constitutes an innate and universal aspect of human sexual anatomy. However, like any intrinsic characteristic, sexual pleasure is moderated by and unfolds within a particular physical and cultural milieu. It is therefore subject to the cultural vagaries of permissibility and restriction that influence both the overt expression and subjective experience of sexual pleasure.
Even if the capacity for sexual pleasure is innate, and in some sense “basic” for the human species, one might argue that pleasure is secondary to procreation (or reproduction). This is certainly true for the
“lower” species of mammals, which, if they experience pleasure at all, are nonetheless restricted sexually to the reproductively fertile estrus periods of the female. For these animals, sexual pleasure (if it exists) is clearly subservient to reproduction. With the primates, however, one begins to see a bifurcation in the functional meaning of sex. Although the reproductive cycle of many nonhuman primates remains at least
partially bound to hormones, sexuality is no longer entirely restricted by the female cycle.
In humans the divergence of the reproductive and the nonreproductive is even more striking. Essentially free of the hormonal regulation of sexual desire, women can—and do—engage in sex at any time in their cycle, irrespective of fertility status. For men and women, pleasure is not dependent on fecundity. Sexual desire is evident in postmenopausal women and in prepubescent children of both sexes. Furthermore, human sexual anatomy is specialized for pleasure no less than procreation. The sole function of the clitoris, for example, is the generation of pleasure. Pleasure, not reproduction, also provides the most parsimonious explanation of the presence of numerous nonobvious erogenous zones, such as ears, toes, and the backs of kneecaps. Similarly, the wide variation in sexual practices observed across cultures, and even within cultures, is largely inexplicable within a reproductively oriented explanatory framework. Psychologically, pleasure drives the human desire for sex, and also provides the foundation for ancillary sexual functions, such as emotional bonding. In sum, the evidence suggests that the pleasurable and procreative aspects of human sexuality are conceptually, anatomically, and psychologically distinct.